Thursday, July 4, 2019

Flashback 1995: Having a Blast on Fourth of July Should Mean Fun, Not Injuries


     Not even 10 p.m., the night before Independence Day, and the leafy suburban paradise sounds like the Battle of the Marne—low percussive booms and staccato pops, cascades of crackles and distance roars. I'm not a fireworks fan, obviously—not only are they dangerous, but they frighten my dog, who is cowering at my feet as I type this, looking up at me accusingly, wondering why I don't make the ruckus stop. If only I could, Kitty. The best I can do is try to remind those who feel compelled to set them off at least remember to stop at a decent hour and try to be as safe as possible until they do. The service piece below isn't the most gruesome fireworks safety piece I've ever written—that would be this—but it serves its purpose. Have a safe and sane 4th. 

     Spread your fingers out in front of you and count them. If you've got all 10 and would like it to stay that way after July 4, then take a moment to think about fireworks safety.
     In the week before and after last year's Fourth of July holiday, 121 Chicagoans went to hospital emergency rooms with injuries from fireworks, according to the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council. Most of the injuries were minor burns. A quarter were eye injuries, many resulting in some blindness. Seven people lost fingers or toes.
     "National data tells us that between 8,000 and 12,000 people are injured every year by fireworks," said Dr. Elizabeth Powell, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children's Memorial Hospital. "About half of those are kids. The eyes are most commonly injured, followed by hands and fingers. Not all of them are major injuries, of course, but if we can prevent them, why not do so?"
     Even those who aren't planning to go near fireworks need to think about safety—bystanders suffer 40 percent of fireworks injuries. In 1992, a 37-year-old Chicago woman had her right hand blown off while trying to bat away an illegal firework tossed in her direction. Investigators later determined that the "firecracker" had the power of a half-stick of dynamite.
      In 1993, a 4-year-old Chicago girl watching fireworks being set off died after a rocket struck her in the eye and lodged in her brain.
     Two years before that, a malfunctioning mortar killed a 30-year-old Burnham man. He looked into the tube of the device, trying to determine what was wrong with it, and it ignited, nearly decapitating him.
     The thousands of injuries nationwide, and occasional deaths, are not surprising, considering that most of the $ 300 million in fireworks sold in the United States are ignited by people who are not trained in handling them.
     Most consumer fireworks—mortars, roman candles, bottle rockets and the like—are illegal in Illinois. But the state's proximity to Indiana and Wisconsin, two states where giant fireworks stores line the highways, guarantees an ample fireworks supply to Independence Day revelers.
     In addition to fireworks being legal to sell in neighboring states, there are plenty of illicit fireworks in any state—M-80s, cherry bombs, M-100s and the like, not to mention homemade fireworks that can explode if you drop them.
     Even the devices legal in Illinois—snakes, poppers, smoke bombs and sparklers—can cause injury if not used properly. Sparklers are particularly dangerous, because their tips can reach 1,200 degrees and they are often liberally handed out to children, even young children, who invariably wave them.
     "These are not toys," said Dr. Tom Esposito, a trauma surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
     Fireworks can cause injury even with minor mishandling.
     "I took care of a 6-year-old child who had a package of firecrackers explode in his pocket and give him second- and third-degree burns," said Powell. "It seemed such a senseless way to be injured. You wouldn't give your 6-year-old a pan of boiling water to carry, but nevertheless he was allowed to stick these things in his pocket."
     Some feel that fireworks are so dangerous the only safe way to use them is to watch professionals present a display.
     Four years ago, the National Society to Prevent Blindness, now called Prevent Blindness America, changed its stance from cautioning people to use fireworks safely to urging them not to use them at all.
     "Most agencies like ours would say, 'They're dangerous, you shouldn't be using them and, oh, by the way, if you've got them here's how to use them safely,' " said Tod Turriff, director of programs for Prevent Blindness America. "Looking at the statistics, people obviously can't use them safely. There's no safe way so why propose one?"
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 1, 1995


  1. I actually believe, that by making fireworks illegal, they become more attractive to people.
    Prohibition proved that, as people that never drank before, got drunk regularly during those 14 insane years.
    It's obvious banning them in Illinois is worthless, they just go to Indiana, where are at least a dozen fireworks stores in Lake & Porter Counties. Along with huge billboards advertising them.
    And all of it comes from China, where quality control isn't exactly something they believe in, as fireworks factories in China regularly blow up, killing some workers.

    1. The analogy with prohibition is probably a bad one. I grew up in Wisconsin and have a little place in Door county. Don't know how the accident rates between the two states compare, but do know it's a lot noisier in our neighbor in the north.


    2. Ohio allows the sale of fireworks, and it gets VERY noisy. Some years seem to be worse than others...this year has been fairly tame. It was never as noisy in Chicago, where I grew up and lived as an adult for many years. Nobody seemed to get TOO crazy, but I left in '92, so it may be just as bad there now. In Illinois, you didn't smell the gunpowder or see the smoke, as you do here.

      When I moved to Ohio, I noticed right away how much more stupidity there was on July 4th. I had kids living across the street who used our house as a target. They left a mess on our lawn and upset our kitties, before moving to the boonies fifteen years ago.

  2. Could be worse...and a century ago, it was. The toll for 1909: 215 dead...on just ONE Fourth of July. Similar totals occurred every year for decades.

    When more people began to own cars, they started traveling to professional fireworks displays. The yearly death toll from fireworks accidents dropped dramatically, as people no longer had to stay home and "make their own fun" by blowing things up, including themselves and spectators.

    And then, of course, auto accidents began replacing fireworks accidents as the leading cause of death on July 4th.

  3. In the summer of 1956, I went to Canada to try out seminary life. Surprisingly, we were allowed to wander around by ourselves to a certain extent and we quickly discovered that all kinds of fascinating explosives were available to us 14-year-olds. Before the fun was over, I had.a bottle rocket go off in my hand. Fortunately, no part of my hand or body was either in front of the thing or behind it, so I escaped with all my digits intact. I don’t exactly remember whether I continued to play with the little bombs, but I’m sure I did, as I’ve seldom allowed prudence to ruin good fun.


    1. We put ladyfingers into mushy fruit. "Peach grenades" were fun to throw!


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